More employers bet that NCAA basketball tournament pools aren’t bad

03/04/2014 9:54 PM

03/04/2014 9:54 PM

The days of hiding March Madness betting pools from the boss soon may be as obsolete as the two-handed set shot.

As this year’s NCAA basketball tournament approaches, fewer and fewer employers report they have rules prohibiting or limiting such workplace wagering.

In fact, most personnel poobahs say they have decided that participating in a sports betting pool is not only OK by policy, it’s good for morale.

NCAA tournament pools take weeks to play out, with bracketology and monitoring the outcome of seemingly round-the-clock games a widespread part of workdays. But human resource leaders said they also build relationships and teamwork, and increase employee engagement. Never mind if productivity suffers a bit.

“The trend is definitely toward looking at these in a positive way,” said Evren Esen, director of survey programs at the Society for Human Resource Management. “They do bring employees together (and) impact relationships with each other. They serve as sort of a bonding, like talking about the TV shows they’re watching.”

In a survey by the human resource group four years ago, one out of three employers said they regulated office betting pools. In a followup survey taken during last year’s NCAA tournament, just one out of five employers had such rules, and they are likely to be even more lenient this year.

Furthermore, more than nine out of 10 of those surveyed said they had never disciplined an employee for gambling policy violations.

That’s not to say that employment law attorneys are completely at ease with the acceptance of betting pools that’s grown in the last few years.

“The problem is the exchange of money that happens when a winner takes co-workers’ cash,” said Jim Holland, a Kansas City attorney at Fisher & Phillips, whose corporate clients often ask for advice. “They want to know what happens if they catch guys running an illegal dice game in the warehouse and they want to terminate them. Gambling is gambling, so it’s hard to make a distinction.”

In the law office, Holland said he and his fellow partners focus their March Madness pool on bragging rights and maybe treat the winner to lunch, and don’t play for cash.

“I can’t say to turn a blind eye to it if people are putting money in,” he said, “but I’ve never heard of the IRS or county prosecutors chasing someone down because of an office pool. They have bigger things to do.”

Still, some employers remain wary. Ten percent have a written policy addressing office pools, and 8 percent said prohibition against such wagering is an “unwritten policy,” according to the human resource society’s poll.

A related concern is employee participation in fantasy sports leagues. Fifteen percent of workplaces ban that, largely because workers can spend even larger amounts of time on them and hurt productivity.

To be sure, every March brings estimates of lost productivity. The outplacement and coaching consultancy of Challenger Gray & Christmas calculated that at least $134 million in “lost wages” were incurred last year because employees watched the basketball games on company time.

Overall, that “will not even register as a blip on the economic radar,” acknowledged James Pedderson, Challenger’s director of public relations in Chicago. “It’s really a question of engagement versus productivity.”

Some employers, concerned about bandwidth use as much as task-sapping attention, do ask employees to refrain from watching games on their work computers.

Most managers realize, though, that with the ubiquity of personal smartphones and other Internet-enabled devices, employees who want to watch (or peek) will find a way.

Pedderson said his firm agreed with the human resource society’s survey results: Employers should “mitigate the (tournament’s) distraction by using it to build morale, camaraderie and loyalty.”

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